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(Credit: Haxan Films)

Film

Why found footage can make the most visceral horror movies

@Russellisation

The birth of virtual reality has yet to truly catch on in the world of video games, with the medium merely testing the water with mainstream titles. One genre it has immediately taken to, however, is horror, with terrifying VR games becoming one of the many preferred avenues of content for Twitch and the like, indeed, nothing’s more horrifying than putting yourself in the role of a lone survivalist roaming the twilight forests or a haunted mansion. 

If there is any cinematic equivalent to VR it’s the style of found-footage filmmaking, where directors will create a film that looks as though it’s been captured on a camcorder, phone or personal GoPro. Putting you at the very forefront of the action, such films almost become virtual reality experiences in and of themselves, with characters navigating their environment as one would also do in the same real-life situation, creeping round corners and hastily dashing away from danger. 

Although several films introduced audiences to this concept, such as the 1980 video nasty Cannibal Holocaust, no film was as pioneering for this movement as the independent horror flick The Blair Witch Project from 1999. 

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The equivalent of your unsophisticated grungy next door neighbour who never opens his curtains, out in the woods making a movie, The Blair Witch Project was unapologetically unsophisticated and unpolished. A muddy grass-stained affair riddled with dodgy camerawork, disinteresting dialogue and questionable performances, it’s exactly what you’d expect from a rare real-life case of found footage, with each ‘dodgy’ filmmaking element only accentuating the ‘real-life’ authenticity of the film, heightening the genuine panic and irrationality of its characters.

The success of the film sparked a whole horror sub-genre in the found-footage movement of the early 2000s, where a move towards lower budgets, smaller teams and more basic concepts was popularised. With grainy imperfection, paranoid ambiguity and a strict dedication to realism, the best of the sub-genre included Lake Mungo, Rec. and Paranormal Activity. 

Becoming heavily congested following the success of such films, fan enthusiasm shifted to boredom, as the sub-genres predictable conventions had not been revolutionised since the release of Paranormal Activity in 2007. Short films made on a shoestring budget, the grainy blue-filtered blur of security camera footage became a cinematic bore and the QR code that directed audiences to ‘more information’ at the end of 2012s The Devil Inside slammed the door firmly shut on the success of found footage. 

As technology becomes ever more invasive and prevalent in each and every corner of modern life, however, found footage flicks have gained a resurgence in recent years, in the form of online horrors Unfriended and Host to dynamic thrillers like Dashcam. At the very forefront of this revolution is Rob Savage, the filmmaker behind both Host and Dashcam who has injected the sub-genre with a much-needed dose of adrenaline and originality. 

His 2020 Covid-filmed project Host has gone on to become a contemporary favourite whilst Dashcam proved divisive at Sundance, with both films striving for authenticity in a subgenre that has long lacked this quality. 

After all, found footage at its very best can place the viewer in the very frame of the action, fearing exactly that which only the protagonist can see. Their view is our view, their fear is our fear and their decisions are ultimately ours too.